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Brazilian Trump Is Closing the Gap

Jair Bolsonaro’s surprisingly strong election performance reminds us that the populist phenomenon is still largely unexplained.

President Trump Holds Joint Press Conference With Brazilian President Bolsonaro
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro listens to U.S. President Donald Trump at a joint news conference in the Rose Garden at the White House March 19, 2019. (Jim Lo Scalzo-Pool/Getty Images)

The pollsters were wrong again, hugely. Though former president and jailbird Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva—usually just Lula—still emerged from Brazil’s Sunday election with a five-point lead ahead of an October 30 runoff with President Jair Bolsonaro, recent polls had suggested he might win outright, garnering the necessary 50 percent of the vote.

Lula’s final 48.4 percent was an underperformance, but the real surprise, and perhaps a familiar one to U.S. observers, was Bolsonaro’s stronger-than-expected 43.2 percent and his party’s trouncing of the liberals and leftists down ballot. The last polls of the cycle, from apparently respectable institutions, had placed Bolsonaro’s share closer to 36 percent, along with predicting Lula getting past the post.  

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Like last week’s general election in Italy, where Giorgia Meloni appears set to become the nation's first female prime minister and a conservative counterweight to E.U. globalism, Brazil’s first-round results suggest that the respectable sorts still don’t know who these right-wing populists actually are. That’s not entirely their fault; the polling and sociology toolbox was built in an era of widespread trust in technocrats and expertise. If anything has defined the last decade—say since the Occupy Wall Street movement, at least in the U.S.—it has been growing suspicion of the credentialed and official, a suspicion that has, with Trump and Brexit and Bolsonaro and Covid, become culturally coded as right-wing. Bolsonaro warned his voters not to believe the polls; why would they trust the pollsters enough to tell the truth? 

Note the phrasing “become culturally coded as right-wing.” For most of the ’90s and 2000s, distrust of officialdom was key to America’s legendary political horseshoe. Both the fringe left and fringe right did it; that was what made them fringe. But now, thanks to our terms-of-service censorship regime, prestige-newspaper gatekeeping, and television hysteria, fringiness itself has been made into something implicitly or explicitly Nazi-adjacent.

In these conditions, some people are status-sensitive enough to try to become normal. They’re willing to stop asking questions and pull the lever. But a lot of people aren’t, and while they were crust-punk rockers, communitarian pot farmers, and straight-edge early adopters of polyamory a decade ago, today they find themselves married and told they’re nationalists. How can you measure a faction that doesn’t want to be measured and stands against measuring? 

You see the same problem in attempts to describe Bolsonaro himself, almost invariably by employing whatever label is used for Trump. (“Many people are saying he’s the Brazilian Trump.”) But the fundamental temptation is to interpret a man as an ideology, a set of doctrines that can be labeled, forgetting that labels follow their leaders. It is to confuse a man with an idea, a man with an institution. Prudence is what the prudent man does. And the individual can contain multitudes (or legion, which should sober us all). To expect consistency of a mathematical sort is to forget all the little contradictions contained in yourself.

Consider how, now in a position to fight another day, Bolsonaro has moved up the delivery dates for one of Brazil’s bimonthly social-welfare programs, so that money will hit accounts before voters go to the polls. Lula couldn’t do it better.

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Nevertheless, the academics and scribblers and talking heads must have their label. No matter if Bolsonaro is ousted by Lula, his movement is here to stay. It will be up to commentators to decide whether they’ll learn the lesson about leaders and political factions implied in that “his”—they’re still struggling here in the States. Brian Winter, editor-in-chief of Americas Quarterly described the situation this way in a roundup of reactions to the election results: 

Some people believed Bolsonaro would lose big, and he would go down in Brazilian history as a kind of aberration. That’s over now. Bolsonaro and bolsonarismo are here to stay, even if Lula does win the runoff. With yesterday’s results, and the wave of pro-Bolsonaro figures elected to Congress and governorships, the president can credibly claim to be the leader of a conservative movement with energy and staying power. Brazil’s Evangelical Christian community is growing, society overall is more conservative than it was 20 years ago, and I think we are still trying to understand the implications of this going forward.

Four years ago, the London School of Economics’ Matthew A. Richmond attempted to describe the working-class Brazilians attracted to Bolsonaro, Bolsonarismo popular, for the Sociological Review’s monthly magazine. Richmond wrote, “Ultimately, it is about correcting what is viewed as a profound injustice – that those who work hard do not get what they believe they deserve – like education, healthcare and security – and those who do not work hard get things they don’t deserve.”

He went on to write, “It is no coincidence that Bolsonaro centres his discourse on the figure of the cidadão de bem, the upstanding, law-abiding citizen. Many in the peripheries recognise themselves in this ideal-type.” And concluded, flashing his credentials as one of the good guys, “This is a crusade of second-class citizens against non-citizens, orchestrated by those who[se, sic] rights and privileges are never in doubt.”

Without belaboring the obvious reasons why they might want to, allow me to suggest that American conservatives have every right to cheer a better-than-expected performance from Bolsonaro and his party in Brazil. Not being Brazilian voters, it is not on us to justify a preference for one candidate over another. We Americans need not weigh the sins and faults of both of these Brazilian presidents and conclude which will be the lesser of two evils; not having any power in this election, we have no responsibility for it either. Besides, politics is an art of prudence, not of perfection.

A victory for Bolsonaro represents a defeat for the international left, a blow to the same coalition of Big Philanthropy, NGOs, and globalizing bureaucrats that undermine truth, justice, and the American way. An October 30 runoff in Brazil, likely to be contested, a week and a half before a midterm election in the United States—early November in the Western hemisphere could be very interesting indeed.

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